Thursday, 15 July 2021
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
93. To ask the Minister for Rural and Community Development her plans to introduce new supports and incentives for the refurbishment of vacant properties to increase town centre living, following on from the pilot town centre living initiative; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38461/21]
127. To ask the Minister for Rural and Community Development the new supports and incentives that will be introduced for the refurbishment of vacant properties to increase town centre living, as committed to in Our Rural Future; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38456/21]
Too many towns and villages have vacant and derelict buildings that, as well as being eyesores and potentially dangerous sites, are buildings that could support local businesses and provide housing. We need a whole-of-government approach to this issue, with local authorities and Departments working together. Will the Minister outline the measures she is putting in place to address vacant and derelict buildings?
I propose to take Questions Nos. 89, 93 and 127 together.
The refurbishment of vacant properties is being addressed by a number of initiatives delivered by my Department, in line with the commitments contained in Our Rural Future. In April, I announced investment of €81 million for 25 landmark projects for funding under category 1 of the rural regeneration and development fund, RRDF. The projects will combat dereliction, increase the vibrancy of rural towns and villages and regenerate town centre buildings. A call for RRDF category 2 projects opened in May.
I have also announced funding of €15 million under the 2021 town and village renewal scheme. A key focus of this year's scheme is to renovate derelict and vacant buildings in town centres, including for residential living. I have increased the maximum grant available under the scheme to €500,000 to permit projects of additional scale to be funded. In addition, I will shortly be announcing a new €2 million scheme to fund the development of town master plans, which I expect will identify strategic actions tailored to address vacancy and support town centre living in each town.
There is a range of other initiatives outlined in Our Rural Future that will contribute to addressing vacancy in our towns and villages. In particular, an interdepartmental group has been established to develop a town centre first approach and bring forward recommendations to Government. As part of its role, this group is considering the suggested actions set out in the report on my Department's town centre living initiative, which was published last year. As part of budget 2022, and in the context of the town centre first approach, we will examine the scope to introduce new supports and incentives for the refurbishment of vacant properties to increase town centre living.
There is a range of schemes that seek to deal with this issue. As I indicated, €81 million in funding is being made available for 25 flagship projects under the RRDF. The work will involve looking at old buildings, including cinemas, courthouses and convents. For example, we provided funding to Donegal County Council to convert a former department store into a wonderful new complex. We have given funding to refurbish a number of old convents, including one in Ballymahon. These buildings will be brought back into use as community facilities, such as libraries, remote working hubs and so on. Some will be multipurpose buildings. I want to see investment in bringing buildings back into use and conversion for 21st century living. The way we are living is changing and remote working, in particular, is a wonderful opportunity for rural Ireland. It makes sense to convert some of these properties and use them for that purpose.
We all acknowledge that this as an issue that needs intervention. We know how disheartening it is for local communities, including those in west Cork, to see buildings that formerly housed thriving family businesses or were homes fall into disrepair. In many cases, Tidy Towns committees and property owners take on the responsibility of cleaning them up. We also have cases like Mitchelstown in north Cork, however, where the facade of a building recently collapsed. My colleague, Councillor Ross O'Connell, has been working on these issues in Goleen and Bantry in west Cork, which are examples of how even one or two vacant buildings in a town or village can have a disproportionate impact and give the impression of a high street that is empty and derelict.
The Minister highlighted the town and village renewal scheme as a means of bringing vacant and derelict sites back into use. However, that is a multipurpose and competitive scheme that is vastly oversubscribed. What specific interventions is she proposing under that scheme?
A pilot was done under the town centre living initiative and 15 suggested actions came out of it. Have those suggested actions been reviewed by the Minister's Department? One of them was to appoint town centre officers, perhaps in local authorities, who would assist property owners. We know there have been issues in this area and the pilot report also acknowledged legal issues in regard to ownership. The idea is that town centre officers would get in and engage with property owners where properties are being left in ruins in the centres of rural towns in particular. They are an eyesore and it is an unfortunate situation. While there are schemes in place, there is clearly a need for new initiatives and actions in this regard. In many towns, the situation is not getting much better and it is clear they are not seeing the funding that is available. That is why we need new initiatives based on the 15 suggestions.
Deputy Kerrane has submitted a question on town centre first officers, which we will get to presently. I will come back on that specific point when I answer that question.
The town centre first group has been set up under the chairmanship of the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke. My Department feeds into that interdepartmental group and much of its work is on the suggested actions set out in the report on the town centre living initiative. A number of actions will take place as a result of the work of the group. It was established to consider the regeneration of our towns and villages, as I said. It has agreed four key pillar areas for development of a town centre first framework, namely, governance and enabling structures-----
The latest rural development policy recognises the issues involved and proposes a number of measures in response. As well as the town and village renewal scheme, it mentions encouraging local authorities to use compulsory purchase orders, CPOs, to deal with derelict buildings. Will the Minister use her influence to prompt councils to take more action in this area? We all know there are tools available to local authorities that are underused. Encouragement from the Minister could lead to greater action on that front.
The policy also mentions providing financial support to local authorities to bring vacant properties back into use as remote working hubs. Will the Minister outline what sort of funding will be made available in this regard and the timescales involved? Vacant and derelict buildings are an ongoing issue that needs policies and funding from Government and local authorities. We need a carrot-and-stick approach to prevent owners from sitting on properties, help communities to bring sites back to life and, crucially, encourage councils to use the tools they have to address this issue.
Some of the specific actions that are being considered by the interdepartmental group include incentivising the use of vacant buildings through taxation strategies, exploring financial disincentives in respect of vacancy and underuse, examining alternative models for access to finance for the adaptive reuse of vacant buildings, resourcing and supporting local authorities to invest and demonstrate confidence in their town, and establishing a cross-cutting town centre first approach. There have been some really good examples of what can be done and I would like other local authorities to take note, especially where there is a large number of derelict buildings in particular towns.
Local authorities need to work with local communities. Some towns have already benefited from the available funding. In Kinsale, for instance, funding of €2.157 million from the first call of category 1 applications has been approved for a library project. The relocation of Kinsale library to a listed, council-owned heritage building will require a major restoration and fit-out. Deputy Kerrane will be very familiar with the Boyle regeneration initiative, to which funding of €2.137 million has been given for a series of linked projects, including the refurbishment of the vacant former Royal Hotel and its conversion into an enterprise hub.
There is good work going on there and I want to see more of it because it is the right thing to do. A lady who recently wrote a book on how towns were planned many years ago was interviewed on radio yesterday. We can look back to what happened in the 1800s and how towns were planned then. We could take a leaf out of that book as well.